Climate Change Begins at Home
Life on the Two-Way Street of Global Warming
By Dave Reay
Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Dave Reay
All rights reserved.
the power of one
Meet the Carbones, a middle class family living in a typical street. A street, just like thousands of others in the Western world, with picket fences and trimmed lawns, with coffee mornings and a neighbourhood watch. The Carbones have worked hard to buy the house and cars they want, and to provide for their two young sons, George and Henry.
It's Saturday morning and the Carbones have just got back from the supermarket. They are unloading the week's shopping from their gleaming people carrier. The weather in Alabama is wiltingly hot again and it's a race to get the ice cream into the freezer before it melts completely. Once in the house, George racks up the air-conditioning and slides in front of the TV. Henry slopes off to his room, puts on some music and rejoins his online game. With shopping safely put away, and all the carrier bags stored for reuse, Mr and Mrs Carbone sit down with the newspapers and a fresh cup of fairly-traded coffee. Life is good.
Soon though, their chirpy conversation trails off and their buoyant mood is punctured by the doom-laden headlines. The Greenville Herald warns of the heatwave intensifying and prints an appeal from the local Senator for restraint in electricity use at peak times to avert a power blackout. Health officials estimate that 2,000 people across the county have already been hospitalised with heat stroke and 30 have died. They urge the public to keep an eye on elderly neighbours and not to leave dogs or young children unattended in cars. Two boys have drowned trying to cool off by swimming in a local lake. The national news isn't much better. Across the Mid-West there is strict water rationing, many farmers are watching their top-soil blowing away in the wind, and up in Alaska thousands of homes have been lost to thawing permafrost.
This haywire climate, not that of some distant African state, but here, at home, has the Carbones worried. Just five years ago both would have dismissed any suggestion of taking action on climate change, citing the economic arguments of politicians and hinting at the vested interests of climate scientists. Then, the warnings were dire but the evidence appeared scant – and both could still remember 1970s predictions of our falling into a new ice age.
Now, although the Carbones still feel that the threat has been exaggerated, they cannot deny the ever-earlier start to spring in Greenville, the disappointingly snow-free winters, and the scorching summer, which at that very moment is finishing off the last few living patches of Mr Carbone's formerly immaculate lawn.
As their worry about global warming has grown, the Carbones have become increasingly keen to 'do their bit' to prevent it. For a while now, Mrs Carbone has separated the bottles, tins and newspapers from the rest of their household trash and, each Thursday, filled the special crates for kerbside collection. Mr Carbone has replaced a couple of their traditional tungsten light bulbs with low-energy bulbs, and is always on at the boys for leaving lights, TVs and computers on. They may not wear knitted trousers and eat muesli for every meal, but the Carbones feel they do what they can for the environment and would describe their lifestyle as 'really quite green'.
So what help are the Carbones' various actions in mitigating climate change? The blunt answer is: not much. Their weekly car trips to the supermarket produce more greenhouse gas than all that saved by their efforts to recycle and cut energy wastage. The Carbones have fooled themselves into thinking that they can help tackle climate change without making real changes to their lifestyles. In fact, the only purpose their 'environmental' efforts currently serve is to massage their uneasiness about global warming while allowing them to carry on living just as they've always done.
Why don't they do more? Well, apart from finding some lifestyle changes hard to swallow, like getting rid of Mr Carbone's gas-guzzling SUV, they've tended to see climate change as a developing-world problem. Sure, they felt bad about the increase in hurricanes, droughts and floods in Africa, Asia and South America, but until global warming came knocking on their own door it was all too easy to ignore.
For the Carbones and millions like them, it takes a home visit to really stir up some action. Warn them that their greenhouse gas emissions may harm people thousands of kilometres away and they might try to do a bit – some recycling for instance – but then they can always avoid TV when the news gets too bad. Make them aware that climate change is likely to threaten their own friends, family and way of life though, and they'll be the first in line for low-energy light bulbs at the local hardware store.
This is the challenge faced by all those calling for action on greenhouse gas emissions. They can appeal to our humanity, listing the devastating consequences climate change will have, or is already having, in the developing world – try to tap that guilty streak that runs through all of us living in the luxury of the West. They can, and do, warn of the famine, plagues and migrations of biblical proportions that could occur as climate change takes hold in countries with scant or no resources to adapt. But as long as the apocalypses are remote many people will drag their heels.
Only when climate change starts to squeeze us directly will we really begin to take notice – when it's not only drought-stricken Sudan or flood-ravaged Bangladesh in the news, but our own neighbourhoods and economies taking a hammering. The most severe effects are still some years away and we have kidded ourselves into thinking we have ample time to head off any big problems. We haven't.
Like most families, the Carbones assume that unlobbied governments will deal with such global issues, or that scientists will come up with a technological fix – a silver bullet to solve climate change. Neither of these head-in-the-sand solutions is realistic. In the end the buck stops with you, me, and the Carbones: our lifestyles and our emissions. So how much greenhouse gas does the Carbone family emit and how?
Kate Carbone's life is, to say the least, hectic. Now in her late 30s, she successfully combines bringing up two sons, the bulk of the housework, at least two-thirds of the dog walking and a job as team leader in a local travel firm. Most mornings, it's non-stop demands from the moment she wakes up, from the dog whining for its walk, through the muttering husband unable to find matching socks, to George and Henry arguing about who opens the cereal packet. At the centre of this whirlwind Kate directs proceedings and somehow everyone ends up where they should be with the minimum of forgotten lunches and inside-out sweaters. Running George to and from school is invariably the most stressful part of her day. He always waits until the last possible minute before dashing out to her eight-seater people carrier, despite any amount of horn honking, threats of being left behind, pocket money restrictions and bedroom incarceration. Once the family are all safely off, Kate makes her way through the rush-hour traffic to her office and, with a cup of strong coffee, sits down for another day of placating disgruntled customers whose shower had been too hot/cold, whose hotel was too far from the beach, or who had found it inconvenient that not all Germans are fluent in English. Evenings for Kate Carbone are only slightly less hectic, with after-school clubs meaning more ferrying about of children, dinners to be prepared and eaten, and battles to be fought over when homework should be done and how much TV can be watched.
At the weekend Kate spends as much time as she can in the garden – her pride and joy. Over the years she has transformed it from a featureless waste of brown grass and bramble-ridden borders into a riot of colour and buzzing insects. She has turned a section over to herbs and vegetables, providing the family with fresh salads for much of the summer. There are always a hundred and one jobs to get done, with progress never helped by bored sons, husbands and Labradors. But Kate, aided by regular visits from her mother-in-law, Grandma Carbone, somehow keeps the weeds under control and the flowers dead-headed.
Kate Carbone's climate impact is dominated by her car-driving. All those school runs, the slow drag into work and back, and the numerous food-shopping trips add up to over six tonnes of greenhouse gas each year. She does, though, cut her emissions by growing some of the family's food and so avoiding all the transport normally associated with it.
John Carbone is hugely proud of his family, his house and the life he has helped make for them all. It has been hard work, particularly in the early days when he and Kate had a young baby, only one insecure job between them and an income which could only just about cover the mortgage repayments. John still puts in long hours at the office and has his sights set on moving higher up the career ladder, but the money is now pretty good and he can take more time off without worrying that his job will be given to someone else. His day starts with a hasty shower and coffee to go, then it's into his brand new SUV and off to join the slowly moving queue of cars on the main road into the centre of town. John works for a large insurance firm and has recently been made acting manager of his branch. He reckons that in a year or so he should make full branch manager. Every year he flies to Seattle for the company's Annual General Meeting and, through some blatant networking, has earned himself the reputation as a rising star in the company.
At the weekends John usually has some paperwork to get out of the way. Once that's done its down to the usual weekend chores of watering the lawn, child ferrying, food shopping and DIY. He usually manages to squeeze in an hour or two of TV sport and, in the summer, a few beers with the neighbours and the odd barbecue.
Again, it's transport which dominates John's climate burden. His large-engined car clocks up a massive 12 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. His annual Seattle flight adds another tonne. At home he and his wife must take the blame for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, being responsible for how the house is heated or cooled, and for the efficiency of the many electrical appliances.
We all face the same problem as our families and/or our salaries grow. With greater affluence, the opportunity to increase greenhouse gas emissions through energy-rich activities also rises and the financial incentive for keeping down energy use fades. The climate impact of the two-kid, double-income Carbones has rocketed from those early days as newly-weds who always caught the bus to work and wouldn't dream of leaving a light on. Their household energy expenditure is now in the 'high-user' category, the resulting emissions adding up to 13 tonnes a year. With growing boys to feed; bought-in food alone totals over 30 kg of goods each week; the greenhouse gas arising from the transport of all this food adds up to about four and half tonnes a year. The household and garden waste that doesn't get recycled leads to yet another tonne of emissions as it slowly rots in the dark recesses of the local landfill.
George is nearly eight. What he lacks in age he more than makes up for in energy. He is the main reason the Carbones' front and back lawns are bedecked year-round with trampolines, slides, and all manner of other plastic tat. Play in the back garden can sometimes lead to clashes with his mother, particularly when a plant mysteriously loses its flowers heads or develops snapped stem disease. Being so young, George's climate contribution is mainly determined by his parents. His daily drive to and from school in Mom's people carrier clocks up over 600 kg of greenhouse a year. But this youngest member of the family is already damaging the planet through his waste of energy around the house. He frequently leaves on lights, TVs and countless battery-powered toys, despite the threats and pleas from his Dad. This squandered energy equates to an extra 120 kg of greenhouse gas emission each year.
Henry is 12 and becomes obsessed with any craze that passes through his high school. One week it is collecting game cards, the next skateboarding. A month later the oh-so-desperately-needed skateboard will be gathering dust in the Carbone shed while Henry clocks up his fourth straight hour playing an online fantasy game. His room looks like mission control; TV, stereo, PC, mobile phone and modem flash and hum away to themselves day and night.
Like his little brother, Henry routinely leaves his gadgets on, whether in use or not, resulting in 160 kg of greenhouse emissions each year. He's also got into the habit of turning on the electric radiator in his room at the first hint of chill through his Black Beelzebub T-shirt. This additional two hours of heating each day pumps out 700 kg of greenhouse gas every year.
Fortunately, Henry's decision to travel to school by bus (it gives him more time to swap Orc Ascension cards) saves more than half a tonne of greenhouse gas compared to going in his mother's car. The bus emits only 53 kg to get each card-sharp to and from school for a year.
Molly is the Carbone Labrador. At nine years old her penchant for socks means no one in the family can claim to have more than a couple of matching pairs (and these all have holes in). Molly's climate impact is wholly the responsibility of John and Kate Carbone. It centres around whether or not they choose to drive to her favourite walking spots. They usually do, as most of the best are either too far or too dangerous to walk to.
An average walk entails a 6 km drive in the people carrier (the SUV is too new for muddy Labradors), which belches 300 g of greenhouse gas for every kilometre it travels – about 4 kg on each round trip. With two such walks every day of the year, rain or shine, Molly's annual emissions soar to nearly three tonnes.
Grandma Carbone lives about half an hour's drive south from Kate, John and the boys. She has dwelt in the same large, rambling house for over forty years and every corner is home to a happy memory. Grandpa Carbone built a good deal of it with his own hands, back when most of the land about was still fields and the traffic-clogged road at the front was just a dirt track. As a young couple, Grandma and Grandpa Carbone worked like Trojans to keep up the loan repayments. They spent all of their weekends painting, decorating and planning more improvements. Their son, John, was born and raised in the house, and he and Kate had their wedding reception in its garden. Since Grandpa Carbone's sudden death eight years ago, Grandma Carbone has lived alone in the house – not that she spends much time there, being out almost every day at some fundraiser, playing golf, or helping out with the grandchildren.
When Grandpa Carbone died, Grandma swapped his pride and joy – a 1968 gas-guzzling classic car – for a bright yellow hatchback in which she clocks up around 9,000 kilometres a year. This new car emits two tonnes of greenhouse gas a year, a great improvement on the old one which drank twice as much fuel and was a pig to park in town.
Grandma Carbone flies each Easter to visit her sister in Beaverton, Oregon, adding about a tonne to her own annual greenhouse gas budget in the process. Since the death of Grandpa Carbone, energy use at home has dropped into the 'low' household bracket with the related emissions adding up to five tonnes a year. The old place is feeling too big and Grandma Carbone has plans to move into a more up-to-date and compact retirement flat.
Though her son and daughter in-law have mentioned things like recycling and 'the environment' on numerous occasions, Grandma Carbone has no truck with such lefty concepts. She does hanker for the cooler summer days of her youth, but not the enforced thriftiness of the war years. As such, her greenhouse gas emissions add up to ten tonnes each year and the recycling boxes in her backyard collect only dead leaves and rain water.
* * *
Over at Kate and John's house where, unlike Grandma, they are 'doing their bit' for the environment, how do they compare climate-wise? Let's take the good things first. They recycle most of their newspapers and cardboard, saving about 400 kg of greenhouse gas per year. The recycling of their glass bottles and jars each year, along with all the tin cans, cuts another 300 kg off their annual greenhouse budget. Kate Carbone grows enough salad and root vegetables in her garden to prevent 300 kg of greenhouse gas that would have been emitted from production and transport of this food. John has fitted three energy-efficient bulbs and intends to get around to replacing them all, so far cutting 225 kg of greenhouse gas off the yearly family budget and bringing their total reductions to just over 1,200 kg.
On the down side, the family's emissions are dominated by transport: between them their two large-engined cars pump out a total of 18 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year. And then there is the summer holiday. For the past six years, the entire Carbone clan, (apart from Molly who goes into kennels), has jetted off to Cancun in Mexico for two weeks' swimming and sunbathing at the same self-catered house. For every kilometre flown, each family member racks up a further 150 g of greenhouse emissions. So the round trip to Cancun adds 400 kg to each of their annual budgets. Throw in John's AGM jaunt to Seattle and family air travel produces more than two and a half tonnes of greenhouse gas a year.
Totting things up, we have 20.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas from transport, 13 tonnes from home energy use, four and a half tonnes of food-related emissions, and the tonne produced due to household waste. In other words the 'we're doing our bit' Carbone household puts 39 tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere each year – enough to fill their house 40 times over. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Climate Change Begins at Home by Dave Reay. Copyright © 2006 Dave Reay. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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